Thursday, June 24, 2010

Wanted: Experienced Proof-Reader, Apply DC Offices

Was a racial slur inadvertently inserted in the recent DC Comics title Justice League - Generation Lost #4?

I am one long-time reader who is disappointed by DC Comics apparently turning back the clock on the diversity of their characters even though I kind of understand it. It is fear, perhaps, that any lasting change to the formula that basically carried the company over 60 years will meet with disaster. Fear, perhaps based in reality, that nostalgia is all they have going for them and the shrinking fan-base of continuity-addicts snubs with negative consequences financially to the company anything that resembles true progress.

From all the internet press it is clear that DC is very aware of the recent outcry that there is the perception they are relying on the tried, true, nearly antique and primarily Caucasian models of the Golden and Silver Age of comic books. While the retro models of the characters may represent their perceived and steady market-base they are are not truly representative of the diverse population of both the real and fictional worlds. That mentioned, the creative teams and editors of their books should be a little bit more aware of how their products published after the controversy could and would be examined for every perceived slight, hidden message or racial and political agenda. Every beaten woman, murdered Asian, gap-toothed Southerner or jailed Middle-Easterner in their books, movies and games will be picked apart and commented upon by the rational and irrational fans seeking a pattern, proof of a corporate policy of hostility to a diverse populace.

As example, read this scene in Justice League - Generation Lost #4 (July 2010) which hit the stands this week. Preview images have also been available for public perusal on various websites for a while.

The comic book industry has as one of its primary tropes word-play in the form of acronyms that are explored to sometimes ridiculous lengths. Indeed, major story arcs and even some titles have been pitched and launched merely by how cool or interesting an acronym can sound. It is a tactic of advertising and can pique the interest of a consumer and creates a brand identity that hopefully a buyer will return to again and again. So it is interesting that an industry that enjoys and even exults in word games can depict an African-American (or decidedly non-Caucasian) scientist involved in a super-powers project designated as Nanobyte Genetic Enhancement Research.

If you want to put together and sound out the acronym, go ahead, but I suggest you only do it in your head.

I personally am not the most sensitive or observant person and I noticed and made a connection to a word that sounds like a racial slur that denigrates African-Americans and the character, however tenuous, right away. Unless DC states otherwise I have little doubt that the acronym as it appears was merely careless and unfortunate. It would be career suicide and fiscally irresponsible for anyone to try and sneak an intentional slur into any of the popular entertainment media designed for a wide and diverse audience in this era. Of course it is not beyond the realm of possibility as there are a lot of confused, angry and backwards people out in the world.

There is no proof that someone at DC intentionally included a racial epithet into one of their comic books nor am I claiming that they did. However once something is seen you can not un-see it. It does not matter how unintentional or coincidental the word or how it sounds may be. It is there, however inadvertently and the perception of the individual reader is what will likely hold sway. There are websites that just leap on things like this and run with it. That is important because no one can really conclusively say that the acronym was not intentional and that cavalierly killing off the ethnic and obviously brilliant character in the next page was a mere innocent plot device. Take into consideration in the story it was a secret project and some could infer that killing an African-American who was creating a process that could give the disenfranchised super abilities just looks bad even if it is much-ado about nothing.

Helping create a quality product is one of the jobs of an editor and one could expect that the staff of DC, already under scrutiny by some of their customers and critics, would have paid a little bit more attention to the proof-reading. Some will undoubtedly assert the slur was intentional as a clever flip of the finger to those who complained about the back-stepping of diversity in DC comic books. Some will maintain the incident was just an unfortunate and innocent coincidence. Others will claim there is nothing to be found at all.

Regardless, I expect that in the future trade edition of Justice League - Generation Lost that particular phrase will probably be re-arranged to provide a different result. Given the scene I would submit that an initiative that is all giving super-powers to average people would read better if it was labeled "Project: E.N.R.G.". It would be a lot more fitting if the acronym sounds like "Energy" when spelled out, instead of that other word.


  1. The gold standard of handling this sort of accidentally offensive racial implication is, to my mind, was set by Mark Gruenwald back in the 80s during the "Captain America quits" arc. John Walker—formerly the Super-Patriot, now U.S. Agent—had a black partner, Lemar Hoskins. When the government hired Walker on as the new Cap, they stuffed Hoskins into the Bucky codename and costume. Gruenwald hadn't known that "buck" was/is a racially charged epithet, and so when this was brought to his attention, rather than sweeping it under the rug, Gruenwald had an older black agent of SHIELD (I think?) point out the use and history of this word to Hoskins, who then changed his codename to "Battle Star".

    As a kid reading that issue, I honestly hadn't known about that usage of the word "buck", either, but I never forgot it. It may seem corny in the grander scheme of things, but the whole episode reinforced in my young mind the lesson that carelessly used words, regardless of intent, can be genuinely hurtful and problematic.

  2. It doesn't surprise me that someone who thinks "nanobyte" is a word or that it means anything would also have a tin ear for acronyms. Deafness to language in writers and editors has pretty well driven me away from mainstream comics -- DC is the worst offender, but Marvel isn't anything to write home about either -- though Morrison's ability to give us the occasional "yoctosphere" or "anaerobic meganthropes" keeps me reading his stuff.

    Maybe I'm too cynical (ha!) but I honestly wonder if editors at both companies would be penalized if they ever did actual editing rather than merely traffic management. If an editor ever pissed off the latest [best selling novelist slumming in comics/prominent screenwriter slumming in comics/top selling favorite whose work is adapted for big-budget action flicks] by daring to point out a bad line of dialogue or a clumsy turn of phrase -- let alone an illogical plot turn, or something that could be construed as racist or misogynist -- surely it's the editor's neck?

  3. Anon: Gruenwald likely honestly never thought about, in his experience, "Bucky" and "Buck" being offensive. So good on Marvel for changing it.

    RAB: In the old days an Editor would bounce anyone with a negative agenda. Can you imagine how impossible, with millions riding on licensing and movie deals, firing someone like Ellis even if he did include something that was outside the bounds of the story?

  4. "There is no proof at this time that someone at DC intentionally included a racial epithet into one of their comic books nor am I claiming that they did."

    You may not be claiming it outright but isn't that kind of the basis for your post? To point out what you believe could have possibly been placed there intentionally?

  5. I'm being careful not to 'whaaarglebargle' and flip out and make a crazy claim, so I'm putting in that statement so no one misses the point. And no I don't think it was intentional but it is still there and is a sad coincidence.

    I am open to editing the post and as I re-read sections and don't like how they are I probably will.

  6. Most editors stink at editing. Most have tin ears, and plenty are as bright as a load of rocks. I've had exactly one editor worth anything.

    Anyhow, I think this is silly projection. Get over it. If people get all up in arms over something as silly as this, writers will stop putting in any black people for fear that a black person might offend someone somewhere.

  7. You betray your own ignorance. 'Liberals' and atheists have their own brand of bigotry. All the bandwagons are full in this world.

    Let's have a Utopian world where no one can think for themselves either.


Moderation enabled only because of trolling, racist, homophobic hate-mongers.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.